Tricks of Confidence
Confidence is an unreliable beast. Sometimes you might feel like you’re brimming with it – you’re a cool operator, you’ll deliver the goods – no problem. Sometimes, just when you think you could do with a boost, it’s gone – with not so much as a vapour trail in its wake. Just what was it that made you have the temerity to think that you were a contender? Wake up, sniff that java, you’re crap and don’t you just know it.
In the business of writing – and I’m talking stories, poems, whatever here though it could apply in any context I guess – the reliability wears particularly thin. Or so I find. Of writers I’ve met, there isn’t a single decent one who doesn’t at least occasionally question the validity or effectiveness of their own work. Most go further, trudging the length of this cul-de-sac to its bitter end with alarming regularity. Some even give up entirely. And I know that feeling pretty well. I did so myself, except that several years later I decided to have another go.
In the last month or so, I’ve come across this problem affecting a couple of writers with whom I’m acquainted. One was a young woman, an active and enthusiastic member of one of the writing groups I attend. We had set up a public reading event, meeting up beforehand to read our work to one another and shape it into a programme as best we could. All set, I thought, we’ve got a tidy package here (‘though I wish I’d come up with something even better myself.)
A few days before the event, she emails apologetically. She’s decided her piece doesn’t match the quality of everyone else’s and she wants to withdraw. Fortunately I manage to convince her that she’s wrong and she agrees to my request to participate. She reads at the event, and her voice sounds firm and confident – whatever trepidation she’s felt in the build-up. Her piece goes down well with the audience, and I even find myself appreciating qualities in it that I hadn’t noticed before. Qualities that come out in the rhythm of reading it aloud.
Just this last weekend I’ve been attending a two day poetry event, with some excellent guest readers (who might just pop up in a future blog) but also an open-floor spot at which most of us took advantage of the offer of a 5 minute spot to read our own poems. Among those who didn’t, was an older woman whose work I’ve really admired since I joined the writing group she usually attends. To my mind, she writes with clarity, sensitivity, a fine grasp of language and with some very worthwhile and pertinent observations to make. I have mentally compared my own writing to hers (as you do), and felt that I fall far short of her abilities. On top of this, she is a woman of great poise, charm and elegance.
In one of the breaks after the open-floor readings were done, I told her I was sorry not to have heard her read. She started out by saying she’d just been too busy to prepare anything – which I should think is true, as she’s involved in some other time-consuming projects and is the mother of two young children besides. But then I was shocked as she went on to tell me that she’d been thinking lately that her work just wasn’t up to the standards of everyone else in the writing group and that she didn’t feel enough confidence to get up and read it. I did my best to make my own positive feelings about her work known to her and also to say a word or two about this whole confidence thing, and how the lack of it was, in my view, somehow part of the territory in the business of creative writing.
And I’ve been thinking about it some more since then.
Amongst my oldest and dearest friends is a guy who for the last 30 years or so has been afflicted by what is generally termed ‘bi-polar disorder’. He takes medication to keep himself functioning and has the advantage of clear insight into his condition. When he is in a down phase, it can be overwhelmingly bleak but he knows that if he (metaphorically) grits his teeth and sees it through it will pass. When he hears voices he knows they are the product of something going on in his own brain. I jokingly tell him he’s the sanest madman I’ve ever known.
I wonder if we writers can take something from him. When the ‘voice’ in our heads pops up, telling us we’re crap and that our works are folly, can we not recognise it for what it is – a mental process that is triggered within us and not necessarily to be taken at face value? If we can do this, we can maybe also accept that even when it goes away and we are back to enthusing about what we’re doing, it will return – this feeling – and get ready to face it when it does.
And it’s not like it’s completely negative, anyway. I made a point of saying in the second paragraph, that I could not think of a single decent writer who escapes this feeling entirely. There are useful aspects to it. We ought to be able to recognise our limitations and very importantly when we need to go the extra mile (or get help) to make a piece of writing better. That negative voice can also be the useful and important voice of self-criticism. Without it, we could easily end up being crap and not realising it at all.
A conversation on this topic during an interruption to my writing here has added a further positive aspect. The idea that being in this intensely self critical state of mind can actually inform our writing. Because the feeling is pretty much universal, at least among those who have some degree of sensitivity and discernment. By allowing it to play its part in our nature, there will be something in what we write that speaks to those who feel it too. It’s a part of our fellowship as human beings.
But then, what do I know, eh? I really should be writing a decent blog instead of all this rubbish. Yeah. I’ve really fucked up today. I’m not sure I’m gonna post this one at all. It’s been a complete waste of time, it has. Nobody will want to read it. Will they?